By Donella Meadows
–May 23, 1996–
“What difference does it make?” a student asked me the other day, when I was talking about ways to use less water. “Water is a renewable resource. It isn’t a pollutant. Who cares how much I use?”
He saw about as far as the average citizen sees into his own environmental impact — the immediate downstream effect. If it doesn’t go into a dump, it doesn’t make black smoke, it doesn’t turn water brown (it IS water), then it does no harm. Go ahead, waste it.
Fortunately he was a student. There was a chance to do some educating.
I suggested that he look not only at where the water goes, but where it comes from. And what it takes to get it to him.
He didn’t know the source of the water in his faucet. So we traced it back to a reservoir behind a river dam, an intake pipe, a pump, a series of filters and chlorinators in a purification station, more pumps, several intermediate holding tanks, finally the faucet. It takes a lot of machinery, energy, and chemicals to deliver that water. When he wastes water, he wastes them all, and they all have environmental impacts.
But there are even more impacts we discovered, when we looked at the river, the dam, and the reservoir. The student, already a passionate defender of wildlife on land, suddenly realized that there is wildlife in water too, whole communities, from microscopic plants to the tiny animals that eat them and so on up the food chain to clams, insects, turtles, frogs, fish, birds.
Of course he sort of knew that. But he didn’t KNOW it, in the gut sense of knowing that whenever water is dammed, drained, piped, dumped, channeled, chlorinated, polluted, diverted, warmed, cooled, or otherwise manipulated, someone’s home is upset. Species are threatened. Communities are destroyed.
Together we read some of the shocking statistics in a March 1996 Worldwatch Paper by Janet Abramovitz: “Imperiled Waters, Impoverished Future: The Decline of Freshwater Ecosystems.”
– One percent of the earth’s surface is fresh water. Twelve percent of all known animal species live there. Twenty percent of them are extinct, threatened, or endangered.
– One-third of the world’s freshwater mussel species are found in Eastern North America (over 300 species). Since 1900 ten percent of them have become extinct, and two-thirds of the remaining ones are threatened or endangered.
– Fifty kinds of mussels once lived in the Little Tennessee River. A dam was built in 1979 and now only six are left.
– In the Great Lakes eleven species of fish once provided a commercial catch of 1500 tons per year. Now four of those species are extinct and the other seven are at risk.
– In 1895 20,000 tons of salmon and steelhead trout were harvested from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. In 1995 the harvest was 553 tons. The coho salmon became extinct in Idaho in 1986. The causes of the decline include dams, timber harvests, irrigation, wetlands conversion, and pollution.
– California has lost 91 percent of its wetlands. Two-thirds of its fish species are extinct, endangered, or declining.
– Only two percent of U.S. river and stream mileage remains free-flowing. In the world as a whole two-thirds of all stream and river flow will be dammed, channeled, diverted, or otherwise controlled by human beings by the year 2000.
When we pump water from below ground, we lower the water table and reduce spring, streams, ponds in that aquifer. When we dump water, we raise the water table at that place, and we contaminate it with the soap, dirt, oil, chemicals, food waste, sewage, salts the water has washed away from us. When we keep a river from its floodplain, we dry up the floodplain communities, while sending intensified floods downstream. When we dam a river, we inundate the reservoir area and change water temperature, turbidity, and flow patterns below the dam.
From the Everglades of Florida to the prairie potholes of North Dakota to the streams draining the Sierras of California, living communities have attuned themselves over tens of thousands of years to the ebbs and flows of water produced by nature. When we change those ebbs and flows, we endanger not just isolated species, but whole ecosystems. That’s why we’re doing more damage to nature in the water than we are to nature on the land.
By this time my student was about to give up drinking, or at least washing, so I had to assure him that there is room in ecosystems for humans too. But not an ever-growing number of humans, most of them using water carelessly. The only way I can imagine that we will start using water wisely is to expand our vision, as I tried to expand his, to the watershed within which each of us lives, its soils and slopes and living creatures and flows above and below ground.
If we could see a watershed fully, we’d understand that a mine or clearcut at the headwaters is likely to bring down silt or poisons or floods upon the whole river. We’d never build on floodplains. We’d put a high value on wetlands for cleaning water, absorbing floods, postponing droughts, supplying fisheries. We would know that our water use exacts a cost, whether or not the market gives it a price, so we wouldn’t use water for trivial purposes. We would be utterly careful about what it contains when it leaves us. We’d treat water with as much reverence as our own blood, because that’s actually what it is — the lifeblood of the planet and of all the creatures that live here, including ourselves.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996